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The Cheapest? Isn't always the cheapest.
From paul on 22 May '98
adding to Re: Business web sites posted by A

Well I found a lot of cheap companies out
there when I way searching. But like anything
else you get what you pay for.
..Will the cheapest give you Tech support,
access to their CGI Bin? Did you want
a dial up account on the same account? If
so you'd want a local number to dial into
right?

Here's are some issues to look at:

First, let's examine the types of services available.

Dial-Up Access. There are thousands of local dial-up access providers in the
country, each of which also provides Web page hosting for businesses. I've
learned that ISPs either specialize in dial-up access or Web page hosting, and
it's a rare ISP that ends up doing both well. Many dial-up access ISPs don't
really understand the needs of small businesses, and aren't quick to improve
service. After all, their bread-and-butter is dial-up access, and that's where
their focus and investment goes. A few large companies have separate
divisions for Web site hosting which help them avoid some of these problems.

Developer's Hosting. A second kind of service is becoming common. Web
site developers commonly host the Web pages for the businesses which are
their clients, often on a computer in the corner of their office. They often
provide good service, since they are customer focused. The downsides may
be: (1) price, (2) smaller connection to the Internet backbone, and (3)
dependence, which we'll discuss below.

Web-Hosting Only. Increasingly you find companies which specialize in
business Web site hosting. They allow no dial-up access (site owners gain
access to their Web pages via FTP), which doesn't allow bandwidth (speed of
connection to the Internet) to be compromised by access customers
frequenting chat rooms. They provide a wide variety of services to their
customers. This is where the bargains are to be found. How do you find them?
Look at ads in the Web developer magazines at your local newsstand.

Industrial Strength Hosting. If you have a very high traffic site, you'll need
to look to the largest national companies which provide mirror sites on both
coasts, 24-hour staffing, redundant connections to the Internet backbone, and
substantial prices. No bargains here, but you have the expectation of
maximum reliability.

Think National

But how do I upload files to an ISP who doesn't have a local access number?
you ask. You need local PPP access to the Internet, commonly offered in
most parts of the US at $20 per month for unmetered service. This gives you
a local e-mail address. It also gives you a connection which allows you to use
an FTP program on your desktop computer, enabling you to upload files to an
ISP anywhere in the world, so long as you have the correct username and
password.

Let's say you sign up with a Web hosting service in Pennsylvania and you live
in Texas. No problem. You get on the Web through your local ISP in Texas,
and FTP your files to the ISP in Pennsylvania which hosts your Web pages.
E-mail sent to your domain hosted in Pennsylvania is automatically forwarded
to your local e-mail address in Texas. You set the return address on your
desktop e-mail program to your business domain name, and no one will know
(unless they bother to read all the e-mail header material) that you have
hosting in Pennsylvania with forwarding to Texas.

Now, if your local ISP doesn't offer you the services and prices you need, you
can shop anywhere in the country. (Anywhere in the world, actually, though
transcontinental Internet connections can sometimes be very slow.) Non-US
companies commonly set up Web sites hosted in the US, and have their
e-mail forwarded half-way around the world.

What to Look For

Shopping for a Web hosting ISP is difficult at best, but these are some of the
things to look for.

Size of Pipeline. The host computer is connected to the Internet backbone
typically by T1 and T3 lines. A T1 can carry up to 1.5 mbs (megabits per
second), while a T3 can carry 45 mbs. Small ISP hosts sometimes have
ISDN connections to the Internet, or "fractional T1" connections (part of a
T1). Look for T3 if you can, though a T1 isn't close to its maximum capacity.
The expense of installing an adequate pipeline to the Internet is the chief
barrier to setting up your own Web server computer in your office; telephone
and other charges are pretty stiff, unless they can be shared with other
businesses. Another alternative to explore is "co-hosting" your computer at an
ISP's location to take advantage of his connection to the Internet.

Number of clients per machine. Ask how many business clients are
assigned to each of the ISP's computers. (Don't be surprised to find out that
many good ISPs use fast Pentium computers rather than something more
exotic.) You may not learn too much by asking this, but you do learn if the
ISP has any policy limits at all.

Space. ISPs usually assign you a certain amount of space on their computer.
5 MB is plenty of space for the Web pages and graphics for most business
Web sites. I once jammed nearly 800 files and graphics into 5 MB. But ask if
mail, log files, and system programs are counted in the 5 MB; these can
sometimes take up considerable space. Web hosts which include mail and log
files in the count commonly offer 15 MB minimum.

CGI-bin Access. Business accounts need to be able to reference programs in
a cgi-bin directory, which includes a cgi program which generates the e-mail
message sent out by Web page forms. So long as a good forms-to-email
program is available in the host's main cgi-bin, that may be all you need. If you
or your Web site developer need to write custom programs, though, you'll
need your own cgi-bin directory. But here's the problem. Most Web hosting
ISPs allow FTP access to a cgi-bin directory but not Telnet access. This can
significantly slow down programming development time. If you don't have
Telnet access, for example, you won't be able to compile any programs
written in C or C++. You have to rely on the ISP's technical support to do
that for you -- when he gets around to it. ISPs say that limiting Telnet access
helps them keep out hackers, which is true. But if it is at the cost of getting
your Web site working, the cost may be too high. Ask: "Do you allow us
Telnet access to a cgi-bin directory?"

Virtual Hosting. These days nearly every ISP offers what is called "virtual
hosting" or a "virtual domain." This allows you to have your own domain name
such as http://www.yourcompany.com rather than use your ISP's domain
name with a subdirectory designating your site, such as
http://www.isp.com/yourcompany/. You definitely want virtual hosting.
Sometimes an ISP will offer something called a "vanity domain" such as
http://yourcompany.isp.com. Don't bother. Pay $100 to register a real domain
name, and consider that an investment in marketing your company on the
Web.

E-Mail Aliases. Once you have a virtual domain, ask your ISP how many
e-mail addresses you are allowed. Many ISPs allow you to set up multiple
"aliases" such as sales@yourcompany.com or info@yourcompany.com. Also
ask if different aliases can be forwarded to more than one e-mail address. For
example, I have a client with partners in Germany as well as offices in
California, with e-mail aliases for each of them. For the smaller business, you
probably don't need POP (Post Office Protocol) e-mail boxes on your Web
hosting site. The POP e-mail box you have with your local access ISP is
probably enough. But larger businesses may want to have multiple POP e-mail
boxes at the Web hosting ISP. (Ask your MIS staff member. If you don't
have an MIS staff member, you probably don't need this.)

Dependence. How free are you to choose another Web hosting ISP if this
one doesn't work out? If your Web site developer provides hosting, what
kinds of contracts lock you into using those services and for how long? So
long as your name is listed as the "Administrative Contact" with InterNIC, you
can transfer your domain to another ISP, though your previous ISP can slow
down the process unless he cooperates. Make sure your Web site developer
isn't listed as the Administrative Contact or it may be more difficult to switch
to a new developer if the need arises. You can see who is currently listed by
checking your domain at http://rs.internic.net/cgi-bin/whois

Support. How many hours a day are technical support staff available? How
quickly do they respond? How much help do they provide? If you need
24-hour technical support -- and larger companies and high-traffic Web sites
do -- then expect to pay substantially more. People are much more expensive
than machines.

Extra Features for Business

Make sure you inquire about the availability of mailing list management
programs such as Majordomo for newsletters, and autoresponders for
automatic responses to e-mail messages sent to certain addresses. If you have
software demos available for download, you'll want "anonymous FTP"
capability. (This differs from FTP access to your Web pages which requires
your username and password. Nearly all ISPs make that available.) Also
make sure that your Web host ISP provides some sort of statistical data on
visitors to your Web pages. Counters are not considered professional, and
don't give nearly as much information. If you plan to take credit card
information over the Web, you'll need to have SSL Security. If you plan to
display databases on your Web site, be very careful to get an ISP whose
operating system is compatible with the system you use to maintain the
database.

What Should You Expect to Pay?

The best advice is to know the services you really need, and only pay for
those. The typical six-page small business Web site with a single response
form, for example, can find good virtual hosting with multiple e-mail aliases,
cgi-bin access, and a T3 connection to the Internet for $18 to $25 per month.
If you need SSL Security, expect to pay $35 to $75 per month. Setup fees
are typically $50, though sometimes higher for special features. Prices will be
higher in many localities. Large companies and high volume Web sites will pay
much higher rates to get the services they need.

But I am paying too much! you cry. Find out what you need and then shop
around. When you discover a better deal, see if your current ISP will match it.
(Life is more competitive these days when business customers can get Web
hosting any place in the country.) And when comparing Web hosting prices
with your local ISP's hosting rates, remember that you'll have to pay $20 per
month for access anyway, so figure that into the equation.

The most difficult thing to learn is how responsive the Web host ISP is to
fixing problems which arise. How slow is the site during peak hours? Does the
ISP host a very high volume site which slows everybody else down? This kind
of information is difficult to find out except by asking some of the ISP's current
customers.

Like much shopping, referral is often the safest. And referrals to the best ISPs
is what you pay your Web site developer to give you. Select your Web site
developer before you select an ISP. But if you plan to shop on your own, at
least you have a list of questions to ask, which can help steer you to the best
service/price ratio possible.

Hope this helps, Good luck, Paul


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